By Michael Lewis | June 24, 2019, 10:39 a.m. (ET)

Alyssa Naeher at an international friendly against Australia on April 4, 2019 in Commerce City, Colo. 

 

REIMS, France -- She has won the Golden Glove of the 2008 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup, while performing heroics in goal of the U.S. championship side. She has made 49 international appearances, the fourth most by an American goalkeeper. She’s a star for her club team, too, the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL.

Yet, entering the Women’s World Cup in France, Alyssa Naeher was considered one of the weak links — or at the very least the unknowns — of the U.S. national team.

The reason? The 31-year-old Naeher hadn’t yet played in the Women’s World Cup or the Olympic Games, the highest levels of the game, and thus had never been tested.

Like a good goalkeeper who keeps the ball out of the net, Naeher batted the question away.

“I can’t control what other people say, what other people perceive,” said Naeher, who was named NWSL Goalie of the Year in 2014. “I know what I am. I know what I bring to the team. I know I’m confident in the player that I am. The only thing I can control is showing up to every practice, every game, trying to be at my best at any given point.

“I stay focused on me. I can only control me, and I am trying to be the best version of myself every single day. I compare myself to who I was yesterday and try to be better each day. So, I don’t compare myself to anything else. I try to be Alyssa and that’s all I can control. That’s who I am.”

Just by showing up, Naeher has been under fire. Former U.S. goalkeeping great Briana Scurry reportedly said that Naeher has the physical tools but lacks confidence. Then there is the specter of Hope Solo, her legendary predecessor.

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Naeher has kept her faith by leaning on her teammates.

“You lean on your family and you just stay focused on what you want,” she said. “It was just showing up every day and controlling all the things that I can control, being a good teammate and what I can bring to the team and how I can help the team win. That works different for everybody at times.”

Not surprisingly, Naeher’s teammates will lean on her during matches.

“I’ve been with Alyssa since 16, so I’ve known her for a long time and it’s awesome to see her step into this role because I’ve always known she has the capacity and the talent to be the starting goalkeeper on this team,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said. “And she’s shown that. She provides a very calm consistency back there. She’s always someone with steely nerves. She just does a really good job of putting on a game face and you look at her and you get that confidence that you need that she’s got everything under control.

“Her communication’s great. I feel very comfortable with her. We all do. We feel comfortable playing with her as a back five. Alyssa’s done awesome.”

Three games into the tournament and Naeher still hasn’t been tested quite yet. That’s what happens when your team possesses the ball most of the time and wins by scores of 13-0, 3-0 and 2-0 over Thailand, Chile and Sweden, respectively. Naeher was tested maybe once by the Swedes. She might get an opportunity to provide some heroics when the U.S. takes on Spain in the Round of 16 here on Monday.

Given the Team USA’s long period of ball possession, it’s easy to lose your concentration. Naeher has made sure that doesn’t ever happen.

“The biggest thing for me in that is the constant communication with the defense, staying engaged and connected, managing the space in between us and having that constant communication kind of helps me stay engaged,” she said. “Sometimes you’re called upon in the first minute, sometimes you’re called upon in the 90th. Sometimes you’re called upon zero in between, sometimes 100 times in between.”

And in one of those rare times in which she concedes a goal, it’s like water off a duck’s back. It has to be if you want to be a successful keeper.

“You just have to have a short-term memory in the position,” she said. “Sometimes a goal is in the first minute and you’ve got 89 more minutes to play and it’s just being able to compartmentalize it and get rid of it. You can always have time after a game to go back and analyze it and see where the breakdown was and make sure it doesn’t happen a second time. You’re going to have to do more things the rest of the game. You can’t dwell on it.”

Naeher is trying to fill some big gloves succeeding Solo, who backstopped the U.S. to the 2015 Women’s World Cup title and two Olympic gold medals. She was one of Solo’s understudies at the 2015 Women’s World Cup but didn’t play a minute.

Still, she was in a position to absorb lessons from the best.

“Obviously, she was the best at what she did for a very long time,” Naeher said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned as a goalkeeper is that you never stop learning, from my training partners and teammates, and from different coaches. I think that’s important. The beauty about goalkeeping is that there’s no black or white. It’s a very unique position and you bring your personality to it. I’ve been fortunate to train with a lot of great goalkeepers through my years and I think I’ve taken pieces from each of them. If I had a message to young goalkeepers, it’s never stop learning, learn from everybody around you.”

As it turned out, Naeher’s passion for the game was stoked by another Women’s World Cup when she attended the opening match of the 1999 competition at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Naeher’s parents surprised Alyssa and her twin sister Amanda by purchasing tickets for the match.

“I was an 11-year-old kid going to the game with my sister and my parents,” said Naeher, who is from Stratford, Connecticut. “I had no idea what to expect going into it, driving to the stadium and tailgating. The game was an incredible atmosphere. That’s what’s always stuck with me. … Never saw anything like it. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week afterwards. It was a really fun day.”

Who knows? Perhaps Naeher and her teammates could serve as the inspiration of a young goalkeeper to strive for becoming the U.S. national team’s No. 1 goalkeeper.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.